EFL pundit Gab Sutton picks his best bet for Bank Holiday Monday’s action.
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Blackburn Rovers v Norwich City
Blackburn to win
Norwich’s Play-Off bid has approached must-win territory, after a four-game winless streak.
Victory at Ewood Park would put David Wagner’s charges one point off the final incumbents top six, Blackburn, who would still have a game in hand, but anything else would leave the gap feeling a little too big.
The Canaries have experienced two emphatic, bottom-placed relegations in the previous three seasons, and they have the feeling of a team and a club that’s drained, mentally, and in need of a refresh across the board.
Five of the starting XI that lost 1-0 to promotion candidates Sheffield United last week have experienced the previous two relegations, and it could only be one or two that remain for next season, as a big rebuild awaits.
City could get into the Play-Offs, this season, but finishing it strongly, but there’s a feeling that a two-legged Semi-Final against a side as good as Middlesbrough or Luton would not end well, and even if they did somehow get in the Premier League, they are nowhere near ready.
Two sides far better than this one have been decimated in the top flight, and promotion to the fanbase doesn’t quite have the same sense of glitz and glamour – certainly not right now.
Blackburn, by contrast, haven’t hosted top flight football in 11 years – played in League One more recently – so naturally, the prospect of returning feels more appealing, even if they wouldn’t expect to survive at that level first time around.
Rovers need to bounce back from Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Birmingham, but they’re capable of doing that if left-siders Harry Pickering and Tyrhys Dolan purr as intended.
“The prize of Premier League football concentrates harder in the minds of Blackburn than those of Norwich, who have already confirmed that club legend Teemu Pukki will depart Carrow Road in the summer, in what could be an extensive overhaul.”Gab Sutton
Blackpool v Cardiff City
Cardiff to win
Blackpool were hoping March’s shock 6-1 thumping of QPR would catalyse a strong rally towards safety, but it’s since gone the other way for Mick McCarthy’s side.
The Tangerines were trounced 4-1 at home by Coventry, before a demoralizing 3-1 loss at bitter rivals Preston North End.
One of those results and performances could have been seen past in isolation, but back-to-back, they offer little encouragement that this is a team or club that’s ready to fight for it’s Championship status.
McCarthy’s old club Cardiff, meanwhile, are out to right a wrong.
The Bluebirds were winning at relegation rivals Rotherham when the game was abandoned due to the weather: if they’d played on and won, as looked likely shortly after half-time, they’d now be three places better off.
All the more motivation, then, for City to ensure they get over the survival line by finishing the season in good form, with three of the bottom six still to play.
In the first half of the season, the capital outfit were solid enough and capable of creating chances, but missed a clinical goalscoring presence.
Since Sory Kaba arrived in January, they’ve had more of a cutting edge, taken 10 points from nine games: a decent improvement, considering they faced none of the organic bottom six in that time (Reading had a points deduction).
In fact, Kaba has scored four goals in nine and brought a different dimension to the attack: impressive, for someone who had been lacking match sharpness at the time of arrival.
If Jaden Philogene brings his A-game, Cardiff may take another step closer to safety.
“The abandoned game at Rotherham has made the task of staying up for Cardiff more complicated than it might have otherwise been, but I’ve seen enough in performances under Sabri Lamouchi to suggest they’ll get over the line, at Blackpool’s expense.”Gab Sutton
Ipswich Town v Wycombe Wanderers
Ipswich win to nil
Ipswich are in impeccable form, winning their last seven league games, without conceding a single goal in eight.
It’s ironic, because before that run, the defence might have been considered a weak point in Kieran McKenna’s side, but since Harry Clarke came in at right-back, the rear-guard has been transformed.
The Stoke recruit’s strength, aerial prowess and ball-playing talent, as well as his experience playing in a multitude of right-sided defensive positions, gives Town immense flexibility.
McKenna has flipped from last season’s 3-4-2-1 to, predominantly, a 4-2-3-1 this term, but with left-back Leif Davis being such a key part of their attacking play, personnel must adapt accordingly.
Clarke can, in certain phases, slot in on the right of three, but he can also step forward in support of flying winger Wes Burns, who has been in sumptuous form of late.
Conor Chaplin and Nathan Broadhead, meanwhile, alternate brilliantly, because both are cute and technical in link-up, yet both are physical and carry a threat in the opposition box.
As such, depending on the area of the pitch Ipswich work the ball towards, one drifts wide or drops in to join in combination play, while one presses up to occupy an opposition centre-back.
The Suffolkians are smooth, coherent and balanced, yet unpredictable in equal measure.
Wycombe are a little way off that, for all the progress they’ve made under Matt Bloomfield: it might be a case of waiting until next season to see the fruits of his labour.
“Not even the most optimistic Ipswich fan would’ve said the top two was still on, before this extraordinary winning streak, but after seven league wins on the spin – and eight games without conceding – they’re right in the mix.”Gab Sutton
Oxford United v Sheffield Wednesday
Under 2.5 goals
Oxford are hoping new Head Coach, Liam Manning, can ensure this poor season doesn’t cost them their place in League One.
Poor recruitment, bad organisation, a lack of midfield bite and the absence of a clinical goalscoring presence sees the Yellows a mere three points above the drop zone.
In Manning’s first game in charge, though, his side displayed a solidity that had not previously been in evidence all season, keeping a clean sheet at one of the best attacking sides in the league on current form, Peterborough.
The U’s back four of Sam Long, Elliott Moore, Stuart Findlay and Ciaron Brown held firm, establishing steady foundations at a crucial stage.
Manning will be hopeful that if this new-found resolve can be enough to keep them up this season, there will be an opportunity for the club to progress next year with a smarter structure, following the appointment of Ed Waldron as Head of Recruitment.
For visitors Sheffield Wednesday, the task is more immediate: to get over the promotion line.
The Owls appeared to be in a great position after March’s 1-0 win at Portsmouth left them five points clear with two games in hand, but a five-game winless streak has made the situation more complicated.
With the unforgiving form of Ipswich, Barnsley and Plymouth Argyle, there is not too much more room for error for Darren Moore’s side, who are still top of the league but only on goal difference – having played one game more than their three rivals.
As such, Wednesday need approximately 15 points from their remaining seven league games and, with a reasonably favourable fixture list on paper, they might just get there.
Saturday’s game is unlikely to be a walkover, though: it’s likeliest to be a tight encounter that either the visitors have enough individual quality to come out the right side of, or one in which the hosts are able to battle for a valuable point or three.
“Oxford look solidified under Liam Manning, while Sheffield Wednesday haven’t been playing with too much confidence – they’ve picked the wrong stage to go five winless. I think either the visitors edge through with a moment or two of individual quality, or Oxford dig out a result.”Gab Sutton
Carlisle United v Tranmere Rovers
Double Chance: Draw/Tranmere
Carlisle’s promotion bid has stuttered with a run of four league games without scoring, after a 1-0 loss at leaders Leyton Orient last time out.
Ironically, United have more attacking depth now than they’ve had at any other stage of the season, and it’s led to an attack that feels less in-sync than it’s been at any other stage.
The Cumbrians don’t have a Development Squad, nor equivalent, and more players to choose from means more players to juggle and satisfy, which is great for covering injuries but isn’t optimal when it comes to establishing a synergy.
Joe Garner was signed in January for back-up to the likes of Ryan Edmondson and Kristian Dennis, but it’s seen manager Paul Simpson adjust the style of play to something more direct, and the team have been wasteful on the ball at times.
Owen Moxon was showered with praise earlier in the season, and rightly so because he’s had a wonderful debut campaign – yet recent games show the Annan Athletic recruit can at times be wasteful with his passing, given his completion rate of 53%.
Moxon is a through ball specialist, which is great when it comes off, but when it doesn’t, attacks break down and the team can miss the chance to build momentum.
At a time when poise and composure is everything, Carlisle haven’t been able to show it and could fall short in the automatic promotion race.
Visitors Tranmere were to be hoping to be part of that race this season, but they’ve endured a disappointing campaign, languishing in 14th and are now deciding on a manager to take them forward.
It’s hard for the club to decide on a manager without knowing who will own the club in two months’ time, and different regimes would mean different plans, which would require different managers.
Leam Richardson, though, would be the best choice for galvanizing people and establishing the intangibles, after winning the League One title last season with Wigan.
Karl Robinson has coaching ability and higher-level pedigree, while David Artell would be one of the best choices if the club intends to sell assets and build a more sustainable model.
In the meantime, Ian Dawes has switched from Micky Mellon’s 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, which could make them a more dynamic proposition.
“Carlisle have had more players available in the second half of the season, but that’s brought it’s own challenges for Paul Simpson’s side, who are now four games without a goal. They need to bounce back against Tranmere, who are looking to build some confidence ahead of the next managerial appointment.”Gab Sutton
Salford City v Leyton Orient
Leyton Orient draw no bet
Salford have based their promotion push this season on the individual quality of Elliot Watt, Ethan Galbraith and Callum Hendry, but rarely have they looked a truly coherent unit.
The Ammies were hoping the appointment of Neil Wood as Head Coach would ensure attacking football at the Peninsula Stadium, but the former Manchester United Under-23s boss hasn’t always had the personnel he’d want in certain areas to execute his vision.
As such, the Play-Offs might be the best the Class of 92 can hope for from this season, as they prepare to welcome the return of their former manager.
Richie Wellens’ Leyton Orient need a maximum of 11 more points from their remaining eight games to mathematically rubber-stamp promotion, and another 16 for the title –the eventual figure required may end up being much lower.
The O’s are unbeaten in their last 10 league games and boast the quality of ball-carrier Idris El Mizouni, creator George Moncur and the skilfully energetic Paul Smyth out wide, while Omar Beckles has forged an excellent centre-back pairing with Ed Turns.
Orient could get closer to the finish line in Greater Manchester, although with Charlie Kelman suspended, they’ll need Aaron Drinan to rediscover his form of the first half of last season.
“Leyton Orient need a maximum of 11 points from their remaining eight games to mathematically rubber-stamp promotion. I think they’ll get three of them at manager Richie Wellens’ former club, Salford, who are hoping to secure a Play-Off spot.”Gab Sutton